“My dream was to have a company. My dream was to create a space that was inclusive in every way, diverse, but really personable and connected,” says Nick Pupillo, founder and artistic director of Visceral Dance Chicago. “It’s in my body and my blood. My mom holds something in my scrapbook—in fifth grade I wrote about having a dance company someday! I always wanted to dance, but more than that, I loved programming, designing, producing, costumes, music—all the elements that go into it.”
Pupillo began dancing at the age of four at the studio next to his parents’ business in Munster, Indiana. “My parents were hairdressers. They owned a hair salon [the Chateau Bellissima]. I would be at my parents’ salon, and I would always end up at the dance studio! I started learning tumbling, tap—I was there all the time. My dance teacher [Marilyn DeBarge] would also teach me privately in her basement. Her passion for teaching resonated with me. My parents were also passionate about what they did. Hairdressing is an art, and they invested and connected closely to their clients. It was a family-run business, and our clients were part of our family. Every client held me, fed me, took me to the park.”
“In 1987, my dad took me to downtown Chicago, 33 minutes from where my parents worked—my dad’s lucky number! I auditioned for the Ruth Page Nutcracker and received a scholarship to train in ballet at Ruth Page. My dad would drive me twice a week. I found a studio in Munster as well, where I started taking jazz. My teacher, Amy White Hanas, would drive to Chicago once or twice a week and take me with her [to Lou Conte Dance Studio]. She wanted me to be exposed, so I would take class with my dance teacher. That’s when I would see Hubbard Street rehearse—I would be in Studio B taking class, and afterwards I would run over and see what was happening in Studio A. I was inspired by the vitality of the company, the diversity, the personality.”
Pupillo majored in classical ballet at Indiana University on a full scholarship, but he suspected early on ballet would not be his future. “We had to take jazz for two semesters, and I signed up right away. And I wanted to teach jazz, too. I spoke to the director of our program, and she said, no, we don’t need that.” He fulfilled the program’s teaching requirements with ballet classes, but, he says, “I wanted to teach more, and I kept pushing. Finally they added a jazz class on the roster—and there was a waiting list of 35 people. I ended up teaching three jazz classes a week.”
Pupillo also began choreographing at IU—ballet, as per the program’s requirements. “Violette Verdy, one of Balanchine’s muses, was my teacher. She was strict and French; her fifth position was the tightest thing you’ve seen in your entire life. She was always good to me but knew I wasn’t a classical ballet dancer. When we presented our choreography to the faculty, she pulled me into the hallway. I was so nervous! She said, ‘This is your calling. This is your future. I see it now.’”
Verdy encouraged Pupillo to audition for Giordano Dance Chicago, where he performed for three years. Like many dancers, days rehearsing were followed by nights teaching, kids in the suburbs (“north side, west side, south side”) and adults in the city—all while pursuing choreographic residencies at various colleges. When one studio where he had been training high school-age dancers closed in 2006, the parents urged him to continue. The result was the beginning of Visceral Studio Company and the impetus to centralize operations to his own studio. Visceral Dance Center opened in 2007 on the corner where Western, Diversey, and Elston meet, sandwiched between a diner and a car repair shop. Windowless and cavernous, it boasts some of the sweetest floors in the city and draws folks of all ages and many aims, from tots and parents in Baby & Me to producers for MTV, Disney, and Broadway. And of course, dancers: professional, preprofessional, recreational, retired—for classes, rehearsals, auditions, and something more—community.
Pupillo works seven days a week at his studio, teaching everything from beginning ballet to professional-level contemporary and choreographing and directing a youth company in addition to the main company—often with one of his three children dashing by the barres, strapped to his chest, or gripping a leg. “I’m stressed out every single day of my life, but I don’t reflect,” he says. “I do it for every dancer in my youth company, every dancer in my company, every faculty member, every student here. This pandemic has revitalized my goal of what this space provides. People were pretty hesitant when we reopened in July. I went back to working the front desk a lot. I saw everyone come in and everyone leaving, and I saw the difference, people smiling again, crying because of what it felt like to be part of this again. It revitalized why Visceral exists, why I’ve created it and worked hard for it. Art is necessary, and connecting through art is necessary. What we do in the studio for ourselves is one thing, but when we get to share it with other people and share it together, that’s when it becomes really special.”
Defying probability, Visceral is under expansion during the pandemic—and its new location, a few blocks away, with twice the number of studios and a river view, is under construction, after over a year of negotiations. Four times a day November 12-14, Pupillo, Visceral Studio Company, and Visceral Dance Chicago will welcome small groups of guests to tour the new space and witness their newest choreography. Visceral is a studio, a company, and a feeling: a combination of art, family, and community that continues to grow. v